Our Grand Tour success is feeding a very British neurosis, says the Doc...
It is getting harder and harder to dismiss Britain’s cycling success rate in Grand Tours as a coincidental series of statistical outliers. It is beginning to look like it’s happening on purpose. I’ve spent most of the last decade predicting that it will all end soon, on the basis that, well, it has to. But I’m beginning to wonder if what we have now is the new normal.
It’s not the first normal. This is, by my reckoning, normal number four in the long and generally rather uninspiring history of Britain and the world’s biggest road races.
It could have been so different. In the late 19th century, Britain was a cycleracing country of note. British riders tasted success in the early running of the Monuments, and dominated international track championships. Britain could have had a Grand Tour winner, if there were any Grand Tours to win. The French were careful to wait till this era had stopped before inventing the Tour de France. The French are clever that way. And why did it stop? Well, because by then normal number two had taken hold. This was a phase where British riders might well have been able to win Grand Tours, but preferred not to. Why, after all, would you want to ride 4,000km round France when you could do a 100-mile time trial on the Great North Road at five o’clock on a Sunday morning?
Especially since you could ride the time trial for love, but they’d insist on giving you money to ride a Grand Tour, which would sully the whole thing. Cycle racing in Britain was amateur, it was noble, and everyone knew that it was much better than anything going on across the channel. The profound kicking that British riders usually got at international road events was certainly inconvenient to this theory, but it was possible to ignore it if you remembered that only a foreign charlatan would design a
course that included hills, or allow the use of more than one gear.
This was an era when this very magazine used to report the domestic time trial season in all its wondrous detail, while news of the Tour de France and the Giro d’italia was to be found in pocket-biblesized type at the back on a page headed “Foreign Racing”, and often as not four or five weeks after the event.
Normal number three dated from about the 1950s until somewhere in the last few years — personally I’d date it to last August, but that’s just my own natural pessimism. This was the era of no one winning, despite the fact that by this point British cyclists would have really quite liked it.
If you were a British fan you had to redefine success if you wanted to get through the summer and remain cheerful. Either you had to reclassify a foreigner as British — British newspapers in 1987 invariably referred to Stephen Roche as the “first English-speaking winner of the Tour de France”. Or you had to reclassify minor success as major successes — Chris Boardman’s small but tidy collection of prologues perhaps — or, as was the case with a friend of mine, imitate Sean Yates doing a really long turn at the front of a team time trial (he would bend over into a TT position and make a noise like a bear gargling gravel).
Normal number four, the cycle of endless Grand Tour glory, is a bit disturbing if you grew up with the non-stop anticlimax of
“All this winning can’t possibly be right”
normal number three. So many of us were so well attuned to a place in the shadows that the current situation produces imposter syndrome by proxy. All this winning, and a nation in thrall to cycling.
It can’t possibly be right, we don’t possibly deserve it, but let’s hope no one notices. Not for a year or two anyway.
British riders are on top of the world but mum’s the word...